In this file photo taken in November 2014, Juneau photographer Mark Kelley reads to students in teacher Kitty Eddy’s K-1 Tlingit Language and Culture Classroom from his recently released book titled “Once Upon Alaska: A Kids Photo Book” at Harborview Elementary School.

In this file photo taken in November 2014, Juneau photographer Mark Kelley reads to students in teacher Kitty Eddy’s K-1 Tlingit Language and Culture Classroom from his recently released book titled “Once Upon Alaska: A Kids Photo Book” at Harborview Elementary School.

Teaching kids to read: Portland public schools reject usual reading approach

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Portland Public Schools, searching for a new way to teach young students to read and write after years of struggle, has decided to go it alone.

At the strong urging of teachers and other educators who’ve sampled various reading series, Oregon’s largest district on Tuesday rejected offerings from every major publisher. Instead, it decided to buy six components from five companies and combine them into a unique reading and writing curriculum of its own.

Beaverton schools have already made a similar shift and will add the same main reading program that Portland picked, Units of Study in Reading, to all 33 of its elementary and K-8 schools this summer.

It’s becoming increasingly common for the nation’s school districts to create their own elementary reading curriculum. Educators have realized that rigidly adhering to a single reading series, which used to be praised as showing “fidelity,” poorly served a lot of children, including those learning English as a second language, said Donald Bear, a literacy expert and author of both mainstream and supplemental reading programs.

Mixing and merging an assortment of reading programs “is risky,” said University of Oregon education professor Gina Biancorosa, a Harvard University-trained expert in reading and literacy. The effectiveness of the suite of materials Portland and Beaverton have chosen is unproven, and the approach requires greater skill and judgment by teachers to pick the right lessons and the smartest sequence for skill-building.

But sticking with a mainstream reading series would be risky, too, Biancorosa said, noting there’s no solid evidence that textbooks by familiar names such as Scott Foresman or Houghton Mifflin are effective either.

Portland picked teachers from about three dozen schools who tried the six components it plans to adopt, plus a seventh program it didn’t pick up, for much of this winter and spring. District officials measured some of the results, but so far have declined to release the findings.

Mainstream reading programs, which contain scripted lessons designed to teach phonics, fluent reading, accuracy, comprehension and vocabulary, are called comprehensive core reading programs. Research into how young readers learn, along with a big nudge from the federal No Child Left Behind law, enshrined them as standard in nearly all U.S. schools over the past decade and half.

But after Portland Public Schools’ current reading series, Scott Foresman’s Reading Street, didn’t pan out well, district officials were open to novel options. A district selection committee eventually suggested forgoing any mainstream reading series until at least 2023.

Teachers and other educators on the district’s selection committee had two primary reasons for ruling out mainstream offerings, said Elizabeth Martin, one of five former teachers who coordinate and provide training for elementary literacy instruction in Portland Public Schools.

Most series failed to broadly include cultural minorities or portrayed them in stereotypical ways, she said. And all of them catered to a limited band of students in the middle, offering little instruction that fits well for the weakest or strongest readers, Martin said.

Portland chief academic officer Chris Russo said the district must do a better job teaching to all children to read — and black and Latino students in particular.

In 2014, the last year Oregon’s old state tests were given, 27 percent of the district’s third-graders failed the reading exam. In 2015, using the more challenging Smarter Balanced tests, 43 percent of Portland third-graders, including about 70 percent of blacks and Latinos, fell short of the national proficiency standard.

Russo is hopeful the new approach, backed with lots of teacher training, can help drive the huge improvements Portland schools need to show.

This fall, the new approach will be fully implemented in all Beaverton elementary schools and in 10 of Portland’s 56 elementary and K-8 schools. Portland plans to provide the new materials to its remaining 46 schools over the next two years.

Both districts plan to rely heavily on teachers’ judgment to interpret test results and customize lessons, small group work and independent assignments to match the needs of individual readers, said Portland’s Martin and Beaverton’s Nicole Will, administrator for elementary curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Teachers don’t view that as putting too much weight on their shoulders, Will said. Rather, they’ve been hungry to cast aside scripted programs and use their professional judgment to match lessons to students.

“They’re finding it refreshing, exciting,” she said.

Elizabeth Skorohodov, a kindergarten teacher at Atkinson Elementary in Southeast Portland, tried out Units of Study this spring and was relieved to no longer have only lessons that sail over the heads of her struggling readers and bore her most advanced ones.

“It is very much based on the interests of the kids,” she said. “It’s highly engaging, and all my students are seeing themselves as readers and writers. It is a really rich program, and I saw results.”

Teachers at schools across Portland who tested various options are fired up about their committee’s final selections, which the Portland school board approved unanimously Tuesday night.

Teachers will need to weave all the programs together and customize the scope and arrangement of lessons for individual students. That will require far more training than simply opening a teaching manual containing a year’s worth of scripted lessons.

“It is very much based on the interests of the kids… I saw results.” — Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Skorohodov

Both Portland and Beaverton plan three full days of training in August for K-5 teachers in schools adopting the new programs. The districts also plan to offer whole and partial days of training during the year. Portland will also pay eight full-time coaches for the 10 schools that get the books this year: Arleta, Bridger, Forest Park, Grout, Laurelhurst, Lewis, Sitton, Vernon, Vestal and Whitman

Portland is taking those steps because it learned a lesson when it last adopted new reading materials in 2007, Russo said.

The district first failed to get widespread buy-in from teachers, a problem it rectified this time by asking two large teacher-dominated committees to frame and make the selection, Russo said.

The district then compounded the problem, he said, by providing almost no training to teachers, except in high-needs schools. As a result, some teachers barely used the textbooks, while others felt ill-equipped to use their full spectrum of features, he said.

Biancorosa, the University of Oregon expert on literacy education, said providing as much training as Beaverton and Portland plan to offer is smart.

“Professional development and coaching is really key, no matter what what curriculum or potpourri of products you are putting together,” she said. “Sixty hours of training in the first year sounds fantastic.”

There is no evidence from a valid scientific study to show that Units of Study in Reading, either alone or in a suite like the ones Portland and Beaverton are developing, work to get nearly all students to learn to read well.

To assure taxpayers, parents and teachers that the new materials are effective, Biancorosa said, Portland Public Schools should hire an independent research team to examine the results and make them public. Russo said the district is committed to doing so, but has not decided on any specifics of who would to the research or what metrics and standards of success they might use.

At a public hearing, Meg Hagan, a parent of two Portland students and an advocate for students who have difficulty learning to read, pressed the district’s curriculum director and board members to explain how they’ll determine whether the new materials are a success. None of them gave specific answers.

State reading tests, given starting in third grade, won’t show how well the program is working in the earlier grades. But parents and educators will want answers to that question after the new approach is in place, Biancorosa said.

But board member Julie Esparza Brown, whose day job as a Portland State University education professor involves knowing research about early reading instruction, said she and the rest of the board will insist on seeing evidence the new approach is paying off for all groups of students.

Biancorosa said current tests developed at UO that track young students’ progress in reading can provide important insights if researchers compare results from the 10 schools with the new materials to 10 very similar Portland schools without them.

“It doesn’t have to be a massive study,” she said. “But it would be important to have an evaluation of the immediate and the more lasting effects of the shift.”

Bear, author of a comprehensive reading series and also the “Words Their Way” phonics, vocabulary and spelling program that Portland and Beaverton chose for their new approach, said publishers are making it easier for districts to pick and choose different elements that add up to a holistic way to teach reading.

“Publishers of both supplemental and comprehensive programs are responding to this interest by creating a greater variety of materials,” he said. They know that, under the Common Core State Standards, teachers are expected to get all students to read and write at more advanced levels — and it will take more individualized, culturally responsive teaching materials to get them there, he said.

“This is an exciting time,” Bear said. And, he predicted, “There will be further changes, and more adaptive instruction at students’ developmental levels, as digital materials become more available.”

Most elementary schools devote at least an hour and a half daily to teaching reading, and that time will be used differently in Beaverton and Portland schools that switch to the new materials, officials said.

Lessons for the whole class will take up less time. Instead, students will get more one-on-one and small-group time with their teacher and spend more time working independently or with partners to read small books and do other word work geared to their skill level.

Teachers are eager for the switch, educators in both districts say, because students engage much more deeply in work they choose and in lessons pitched perfectly at their needs.

“This whole thing has been transformation for our whole system, in a very positive way,” Will said.

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